Since being founded in 2010, Danish studio Press Play has established itself as one of the most promising new developers out there.
After bursting onto the scene with Max & the Magic Marker, the developer released their most well-known title, Max & the Curse of Brotherhood, last December. The platformer received solid scores and has gone on to reach a wider audience over the past year, thanks to its recent inclusion in the Microsoft Games with Gold program. Now, just one year later, the studio is back with their latest effort, Kalimba.
Taking place in the colorful world of Kalimbi, Kalimba focuses on the classic battle between good and evil. At the start of the game, the good shaman of Kalimbi is struck down and killed by a dark and evil shaman. Without a physical body to call her own, the good shaman must now possess a variety of different colored totems (which is why the title was originally called Project Totem) in order to restore order to her kingdom. To do so, she will need to build a massive totem pole out of strange-looking pieces with even stranger names.
Although the plot is second to the fiendishly clever gameplay, there are still some highlights to be found. If you read my preview of Kalimba, you would know that I have a soft spot in my heart for the stylishly dressed Hoebear, who serves as the narrator. His musings — which usually break the fourth-wall and insult the player — provide a hilarious jolt of energy to the brief campaign. The best comparison I can draw is indie hit Bastion, which features a better overall story, but is similar in its humor.
Crafting exotic totem pieces shaped like a wolf wearing sunglasses isn’t easy, though, as players will need to be on their toes in order to collect the best pieces. Each of the 24 levels features 70 collectible pieces that need to be gathered up, because this is a platformer after all. Players who collect every single piece will be rewarded with a gold plated version, while those who fail to collect enough will get a nice block of wood for their troubles. And since your totem pole is displayed right in the middle of the level select screen, you’ll probably want it to look nice and not be filled with logs.
However, don’t expect to be able to waltz into every level, collect all 70 items and be rewarded with a shiny new totem pole piece. Not only are some of these collectibles placed in fiendishly difficult locations, but there is also the fact that for every death you suffer, you’ll lose a point. So if you collect all 70 pieces, but die 15 times, you’ll only end up with 55 pieces. If you’re like me, then you’d better get used to having most of your scores fall into that same range.
Each level would be difficult enough if you were only in control of a single totem piece, but Kalimba forces you to keep track of two separate pieces at a time. This means that if one jumps, the other one jumps, too. Learning to keep track of the movement of each piece is a rather hard idea to comprehend at first, as there are constant dangers surrounding our lowly totems.
The biggest obstacle our protagonists must learn to cross are the color-specific barriers found in each level. Color coordinated with each individual piece, these barriers can only be crossed by the totem of that color. So a purple totem can move through a purple barrier, but an orange totem would burn up instantly. You can also switch the colors of each piece with the press of a button, which would then allow both pieces to cross a colored barrier. Furthermore, there are also black colored barriers, which are the mark of the evil shaman, and can’t be touched at all. Of course, since Press Play wants to make you feel bad, these barriers are all over the place.
The swapping system is the primary mechanic that players will have to master in order to survive. You’ll need to be able to quickly swap between colors as you make perilous jumps and massive falls. Later levels become a test of coordination as much as a mental test, so again, be prepared to die, a lot. A generous checkpoint system helps make things easier, yes, but death is something everyone will experience here.
Besides the color-swapping action, there are also a handful of additional powers that each totem piece will get to use. These powers include the ability to grow in size and smash enemies, glide and, most commonly, reverse gravity. If you were already having trouble keeping up with each piece when they were both on the ground, good luck trying to save both when one is on the ceiling and the other is on the floor.
Even considering the fact that I died way too many times than I’m willing to admit, I rarely felt frustrated with Kalimba. When I died, I knew that it was mostly due to my own foolish mistake. As strange as it sounds, I feel better about the fact that I could look at a death and blame myself, rather than trying to pin it on the game for being unfair.
Of course, I did say that I ‘rarely’ got mad at Kalimba, as there were a few times where I wanted to smash my Xbox One controller in frustration. The hit window is a tad too small, and watching your little totem piece burn up after you make an errant jump is all the more annoying when you are barely touched. The few boss battles that pop up also fall on the wrong side of the difficult scale. They aren’t fun, and you will most likely die over and over again while trying to best them.
For those that wish to save the world of Kalimbi with a friend, there is also a decent-sized co-op campaign included. Each player will once again control two totem pieces (two red ones and two blue ones). And while the challenge of swapping colors quickly is eliminated in co-op, there’s a different type of difficulty to be found within it. Working with a partner to traverse these levels can be just as difficult as doing it by yourself, but at least you’ll be dying with a friend, rather than alone.
Besides its creative gameplay, Kalimba is also unique from a visual standpoint. Press Play has dubbed its graphical style as “trixelated,” because everything in the game’s world is made up of triangles. This means that every character, background, surface and barrier is nothing but triangles. It doesn’t sound impressive in writing, but in motion, it is one of the more stylized titles that I have seen in recent years. It also helps that it features a varied colored palette, which makes everything seem more alive and vibrant.
I may be in the minority here, but I feel that 2014 has been a banner year in the platformer genre. From garden tool wielding knights to sharply dressed primates, there has been no shortage of excellent games to choose from. And while it may not reach the heights of some of its contemporaries, mostly due to some cheap deaths and a short length, Kalimba is another standout effort. Ridiculously challenging, surprisingly humorous and vibrantly colored, Press Play’s latest is well worth seeking out.
This review was based on the Xbox One version of the title, which was given to us.
While it could have used a handful of additional levels, Kalimba's challenging gameplay, humorous story and colorful visuals help it stand out from the crowd.